The teenage Olympian demands that we ask a simple question of ourselves:
Who was I at that age?
I was young. I was immature. I flipped burgers. I walked dogs.
I couldn't have walked into a crowded arena, my country's hopes in tow, and walked out a champion.
Of course I didn't have the physical gifts, but more poignantly, I didn't have the mental faculties.
I was a freaking kid.
That's what makes the following 20 athletes so captivating, and why the sports world will have such an intent focus on their endeavors this summer in London.
These kids have already risen to the top of their respective disciplines, performing with grace and certainty on some of the grandest stages imaginable.
And here we are at the grandest of them all, a stage where they can bend the arc of what we think possible.
Sport: Soccer (midfield)
Career to Date: Andy Najar has been a familiar face on the American soccer scene ever since he broke in with D.C. United at age 17 and won Rookie of the Year honors. The attack-minded midfielder was impressive in Olympic qualifying as well, assisting on the goal that punched Hondruas' ticket to London.
Down the Road: London is Najar's biggest stage yet, a chance to compete against the game's best young players and prove he's worthy of a European promotion. If Najar can carry Honduras past the group stage, we should see him back across the pond—either in Spain or England—before long.
Sport: Diving (One- and Three-meter springboard)
Career to Date: Tiny Tom Daley, then 14, captured British hearts at the 2008 Beijing Games, but a fellow diving phenom may soon eclipse him. Jack Laugher won two gold medals at the 2010 World Junior Championships and registered an enticing eighth-place finish at the 2011 World Championships. By all indications, Laugher is on his way.
Down the Road: Greg Louganis said Laugher may some day be the best springboard diver in the world. Who am I to disagree? A top five finish in London would bode well for 2016.
Sport: Table tennis
Career to Date: Table tennis isn't known for attracting celebrity in the United States, but one would be hard pressed to find a better connected Olympian than Ariel Hsing. Spotted by investing oracle and ping pong enthusiast Warren Buffet when she was nine, Hsing has been a regular attendant at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting where, according to the Wall Street Journal, she challenges and defeats big-shot investors such as Bill Gates (whom she calls "Uncle Bill"). She's also the second-rated women's ping pong player in the U.S. and has punched her ticket to London alongside fellow American teen sensations Lily Zhang and Erica Wu.
Down the Road: The U.S. has never medaled in table tennis and Hsing, for all her accomplishments stateside, is ranked just 134th in the world. A podium push is still many years off. But the American team has youth on its side, and that at least leaves the window open for a team medal either in Rio or at the 2020 Games.
Sport: Soccer (center back)
Career to Date: Though most of the media fawning has been reserved for Mexico's young attackers, center back Diego Reyes has been an equally important part of the nation's recent triumphs at the junior level. He played every minute during Mexico's third-place finish at the 2011 U20 World Cup and started all five games in an undefeated romp through Olympic qualifying. The latest rumors have English power Manchester United eying him for a potential transfer.
Down the Road: The biggest question mark in Reyes' development is whether he ends up as a defender or midfielder. Either way, there's great optimism he can become a regular fixture for the national team and an above-average performer for a European-based club. In London, he should see plenty of game action during Mexico's push for its first ever soccer medal.
Sport: Swimming (400-meter individual medley, 200 backstroke)
Career to Date: Missy Franklin isn't the only American teenager making news in the pool. Florida Gator Elizabeth Beisel took gold in the 400 IM at the 2011 World Championships, besting her closest competitor by over two seconds. Beisel also flexed her versatility with a fifth-place finish in the 200 back, an event she won at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships.
Down the Road: Beisel was the youngest American swimmer at the 2008 Beijing Games, finishing fourth overall in the 400 IM. While it was a commendable debut, nothing less than the podium will suffice in London. If her current form keeps, Beisel looks like a regular contender in the IM and backstroke events over the next two Olympiads.
Sport: Kayak Slalom
Career to Date: Ana Satila's career took off earlier this year when she won a surprise gold medal at the Pan-American games. The sport knew little about the Brazilian phenom before that performance, and there will be a healthy interest in whether or not she can follow that victory with a medal this summer.
Down the Road: With a strong showing in London, Satila can establish herself as an early star of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil will be on the lookout for homespun heroes, and the teen sensation looks the part early in her career.
Career to Date: Tomic's accomplishments are as numerous as his controversies, which is to say there are plenty of both. Tomic won two Grand Slams on the junior circuit and made the quarterfinals of Wimbledon 2011. He also tried to kick his dad/coach out of a match in Miami and was booked in early 2012 for a dangerous driving incident that devolved into a miniature police standoff.
Down the Road: With a game described by Sports Illustrated as "versatile and clever," Tomic is the youngest player in the men's top 100 and one of the more intriguing challengers to prohibitive medal favorites Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. With some stellar play and a few good breaks, he can make the semifinals. The ultimate hope would be that by 2016 he's a top 10 player with more established medal ambitions.
Sport: Diving (10-meter platform)
Career to Date: When Qiu Bo took second place at the 2009 World Championships, it registered as a disappointment. If you think that's a high bar to set for a 16-year-old, you're right. Most would get kudos just for showing up. But Qiu has the talent to merit such scrutiny, something he has repeatedly confirmed over the past three years. After destroying his competition at the 2011 World Championships, Qiu was named the 2011 Swimming World Diver of the Year.
Down the Road: Even by the gilded standards of Chinese diving, Qiu is a special talent. Favored to win the 10-meter individual and synchronized events this summer, he's talented and young enough to consider a similar pursuit in Rio.
Career to Date: As the second-youngest member of Team USA at the 2011 World Gymnastics Championships, McKayla Maroney made a powerful impression. Her gold-medal performance on vault extended America's three-year run of dominance in the event and established her as the woman to beat in London.
Down the Road: If Maroney can beat out Olympic veterans like Alicia Sacramone and Shawn Johnson for a spot on America's five-woman team, her ceiling is high. With a repeat of her 2011 success, she could become the first American gymnast to win individual gold on vault.
Sport: Swimming (200-meter individual medley)
Career to Date: With a ferocious push in the final 50 meters, Ye Shiwen shocked the swimming world by taking gold in the 200 individual medley at the 2011 World Championships. By beating a field in which every competitor was at least five years her elder, Ye became the latest symbol of China's ascension in the pool.
Down the Road: With Ye's combination of talent and youth, there's little doubt she can become the most accomplished Chinese swimmer ever. It seems only a matter of time before she takes on a more ambitious schedule and starts eying larger medal counts.
Sport: Diving (10-meter platform)
Career to Date: When a 14-year-old Tom Daley debuted at the 2008 Olympics, his mere presence was a triumph. After winning a world championship in 2009 on the 10-meter platform, expectations will be different this time around. It's medal or bust in front of the home faithful.
Down the Road: Daley beat his chief rival, China's Qiu Bo, head up at the 2009 World Championships, so we know he's capable of gold. That said, after finishing fifth at the 2011 World Championships, any sort of medal would suffice. As for the long term, Daley is young enough to compete in one, perhaps even two, more Olympic Games.
Sport: Track and Field (400-meter run)
Career to Date: Even after an accomplished career at the University of Alabama, the track world expected little from Kirani James at the 2011 World Championships. It was, after all, just his second professional meet. Expectations shifted when James stunned defending Olympic champion LeShawn Merritt and the rest of an elite field to take first place in the 400. Anonymity may have helped his cause in that race, but London will bear new challenges. The track world will have a close eye on the young Grenadian, as will his competition.
Down the Road: In 2012, James has a chance to win Grenada's first Olympic medal and confirm his status as a rising star. From there, it's no stretch to imagine James as a perennial contender in the 400 from now until the 2016 Games in Rio
Career to Date: Aliya Mustafina validated a much-hyped junior career by dominating the 2010 World Gymnastics championship, her first major senior competition. Not only did Mustafina win individual all-around gold, she helped Russia to the team title and took silver in the vault, uneven bars and floor exercise. Hampered by a 2011 knee injury, Mustafina missed the most recent World Championships and, with it, a chance to reaffirm her supremacy.
Down the Road: What we know of Mustafina's potential we already saw in 2010. When healthy she can be the best female gymnast in the world. But that's a big "if," and competitors tends to close fast in the youth-driven world of women's gymnastics.
Sport: Track and Field (800-meter run)
Career to Date: Ethiopian running prodigy Mohammed Aman shocked the track universe last September when he became the first athlete in nearly two years to beat Kenyan David Rudisha in the 800. He followed that triumph with a victory over a Rudisha-less field at the 2012 World Indoor Championships in Istanbul. Riding the momentum of two marquee wins, Aman looks like a strong contender in London.
Down the Road: Aman is still a long shot to topple Rudisha in London, but that does little to dim his long-term prospects. He can already hang with one of the greatest 800 runners ever, and he's only 18. With time, Aman can become a perennial favorite in this event.
Sport: Soccer (goalkeeper)
Career to Date: As he moves through the junior ranks, Jack Butland looks every bit like England's next great hope in goal. He led the U17 squad to its first ever European championship in 2009 and followed that performance by allowing just one goal in four matches at the 2011 U20 World Cup. With Premier League kingpins Manchester United and Arsenal both vying for his services, Butland will be under intense scrutiny in London.
Down the Road: Goalkeeping has been a black hole for the English national team over the past decade, which helps explain the keen interest in Butland. Somewhere amid all the buzz—a healthy mix of reasonable expectations and hopeful wishes—Butland's optimal career track has come to look something like this: Premier League promotion followed by national team call-up followed by a long career as the nation's No. 1 goaltender. With a strong showing for the UK team in London, Butland can take a big step toward fulfilling that destiny.
Sport: Boxing (75 kg, middleweight)
Career to Date: Claressa Shields, then just 16, turned in the headline performance of the first ever U.S. women's boxing trials. Against a field saturated with veterans, many of whom waited years for the sport to gain Olympic recognition, Shields barreled her way toward first place in the middleweight division and was named the tournament's most outstanding fighter.
Down the Road: Shields talked about her ambitions in this New York Times video piece, and she wasn't shy. Shields wants a world championship by the time she's 20 and eventually the kind of lucrative professional career usually reserved for the sport's male titans. A semifinal appearance in London would be a good start.
Career to Date: Despite a nagging ankle injury, Viktoria Komova finished second at the 2011 World Championships to American Jordyn Wieber. Known for her superior work on the uneven bars, Russia's darling is the biggest threat to American hegemony in women's gymnastics.
Down the Road: A Komova victory in the all-around and on uneven bars would set a new standard for Russian gymnastics in the post-Soviet era and help erase the shame of 2008, when Russia failed to medal. More than just a champion, Komova can be the figurehead for her country's gymnastics resurrection.
Sport: Boxing (54 kg)
Career to Date: The inaugural women's Olympic boxing tournament will be chock full of great narratives, but none more compelling than that of Sadaf Rahimi. Rahimi, who has already qualified for London as a wild card entrant, is in line to become the second Afghani woman to compete in the Games since the fall of the Taliban. Labeled "the new face of Afghan women" by western media outlets, Rahimi has been candid about her desire to represent Afghan womanhood at the London Games. As she told The Guardian, "I am proud to be in the Olympics and represent Afghanistan, and especially women." That rare spark of political self-awareness has transformed Rahimi from athlete to symbol: a young woman fighting foes in the flesh and perceptions in the public eye.
Down the Road: Rahimi is unlikely to medal in London, and her training limitations—she's allowed just three days a week in the gym—don't augur well for future development. The results, however, are secondary. Her presence in London will be validation enough.
Career to Date: Fortunes rise fast in women's gymnastics, and no one has risen quicker over the past year than DeWitt, Michigan's Jordyn Wieber. After winning the individual all-around title at the 2011 World Championships (her first major senior competition), Wieber surged to the front of a crowded pool of American gymnasts. On the strength of her talents and daredevil approach, Wieber should have a headline role in one of the summer's most popular events.
Down the Road: Few women's gymnastics' careers span more than one Olympiad, so Wieber's potential is bound up in her hopes for 2012. With a sterling individual effort and some help from her talented teammates, Wieber can become the first female gymnast in U.S. history to win both the all-around Olympic title and team gold.
Sport: Swimming (100- and 200-meter backstroke, freestyle relays)
Career to Date: Missy Franklin burst onto the swimming scene last summer at the 2011 World Aquatics Championships in Shanghai, winning five medals (three gold, one silver, one bronze) and drawing comparisons to a young Michael Phelps. NBC has already put the Colorado native at the eye of its 2012 Olympic coverage, a powerful indicator of Franklin's breakout appeal.
Down the Road: Experts say Franklin could win seven medals at the 2012 Olympics, but that's just the beginning. With as many as three more summer Games still ahead of her, this could be phase one of the greatest career in women's swimming history.